Kosovo on Thursday agreed to withdraw police units from its northern border with Serbia to end a growing license plate dispute that briefly escalated into violence and prompted NATO to step up patrols.
The agreement negotiated in Brussels calms the recent flare-up of a decades-long stalemate between Serbia and Kosovo, but does not solve a major problem blocking the accession negotiations to the European Union: that Serbia and its former province of Kosovo should normalize relations after Pristina’s independence in 2008.
“We have an agreement,” said Miroslav Lajcek, EU envoy who is dealing with one of the toughest territorial disputes in Europe. “After two days of intensive negotiations, an agreement has just been reached on the de-escalation and how to proceed,” he said on Twitter, where he published the details.
US Deputy Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar was in Brussels to support EU-led talks that show the potential for further progress in the Balkans.
“I think we can make tremendous strides to help the Balkans overcome a very difficult time in the 1990s and hopefully eventually better integrate into the European Union,” Escobar said on a briefing call with reporters.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic for the time being downplayed hopes for a broader breakthrough. Serbia does not recognize the independence of Kosovo.
“I think the agreement is fair for the citizens. I want us to find more permanent solutions. That does not include the recognition of Kosovo,” said Vucic at a press conference in Serbia, where he met the President of the European Commission, Ursula von., received the Leyen.
As part of the agreement, NATO forces will replace the Kosovar police units at the border, which will withdraw from Saturday. Starting Monday, both countries will put special stickers on car license plates to remove national symbols and allow citizens to move freely.
NATO has around 5,000 soldiers in Kosovo under a UN mandate since June 1999, overseeing a fragile peace after a US-led bombing campaign to end the ethnic conflict.
The new agreement ends a ban imposed by Kosovo on all Serbian drivers to submit a temporary, printed registration. Pristina said her move was in retaliation for the measures in place in Serbia since 2008 against drivers from Kosovo.
Lajcek said he was working on a longer term solution.
The confrontation is a reminder of the larger conflict between Kosovo and Serbia, which the EU must resolve, said diplomats. A senior diplomat in Brussels said the recent flare-up was in part an attempt to draw Brussels’ attention as the process towards EU membership stalled.
In the run-up to a Balkan-EU summit in Slovenia on October 6th, Reuters reported on Tuesday that the 27 member states had not yet been able to agree on a declaration confirming their 18-year promise of future EU membership for the Western Balkans.